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March 1, 2010


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Learning: 2. Becoming an Artist

Mon Mar 1, 2010, 1:49 PM

2. Becoming an Artist

Of course it's one thing to be an artist and to want to communicate with pictures, but quite another to follow through on that commitment. That's what this lesson is about, before we actually begin learning to see. Becoming an artist is about that moment you realized the urge to scribble and make pictures was not going to leave you alone. When you decided to stop looking at pictures and begin making them yourself. When you began to go to bed later and later because you couldn't put your brushes away. When you began to dream of your next drawing. Becoming an artist is a hugely transformative decision, which most of you have already made. It removes you from the common flow of humanity, gives you a reason to live, a sense of completeness and a desire to improve. Suddenly you begin to think about what you look at. I suspect you are now so used to it, you have forgotten how rare this way of looking at the world really is. But it is different from just looking at something and knowing it is there. A cat crawls into your field of vision.

Jia Lu Cat
My late cat Picasso
Before you start sneezing uncontrollably and burst into hives, you note its geometry, the black glossiness of its fur against the blacker darkness of its shadow, the way its rear leg sticks out like a coathook, and how it looks at you like it wants to say something but knows you wouldn't understand anyway. And you start to think, "I need a cat just like that in the corner of my latest picture," as you rummage through your purse or pockets, not for an antihistamine like any other sane person trying to save her life, but for your pencil and sketchbook.

Becoming alert to the visual qualities of the things you look at is the first stage in becoming an artist. Before we can talk about light and shadow, color and volume, we have to train our eyes to see and our minds to think about what we see. Seeing takes time and thought and above all, practice. Seeing is a kind of meditation, a way of connecting the outer world to your inner world.

To paraphrase a Chinese expression, "You look at a mountain and see it is a mountain. Then you look at a mountain and see it is not a mountain. Finally you look at a mountain and see you are the mountain." Very Zen. There are many ways to look at something and because the mind of an artist is nimble and alive, it sees what others can't. I live close to the San Gabriel mountains in California. Most of the time I can see them hovering there, but if I take my time I note their jaggedness, their color filtered by the air and the sunlight gleaming through the LA smog, their slopes smudged by clouds, and how they are not the same mountains that I saw yesterday, but a brand new arrangement of forms and textures and hue. I've looked at them so often, in so many conditions, that they have become a part of me, a piece of my internal world, a feature in my dreams, a symbol of my determination to finish this painting in front of me. I am transformed by what I see, because I think about it as an artist.

So we come to the second most important secret about art I can share: the way you think about what you see will transform you.

Jia Lu Papercut
Yes, that's me with a papercut
In fact, I never wanted to be an artist when I was a child. My father was an artist and who wants to do what her father does for a living? So uncool. When I was eight what I really wanted was to be Mao Zedong. You know, the Great Chairman. Gets to review the May Day parades. Waves to the People. Lifts millions out of poverty. I was always a hard-working student, proud of my high efforts, and I thought the pursuit of excellence would naturally lead straight to the top. When I was old enough to understand that politics was often ugly, miserable work, I decided I wanted to be a great writer or a poet, or a teacher or actor. Then the Cultural Revolution happened and I saw what became of writers and poets, and teachers and actors. I was twelve when the schools closed and discovered I could be anything I wanted ... as long as it was a farmer, a factory worker, or a soldier. So I joined the Navy.

Jia Lu NurseJia Lu Performance
As a nurse and one of my performances
At least in the Navy I could continue my education, and I began to study medicine, play basketball, and direct stage performances with titles like: "Ping Pong Diplomacy," and "The Children Do Laundry for Their Peoples Liberation Army Uncles."
But when the Cultural Revolution ended and universities reopened, there were no places for kids like me whose father was an outspoken artist, and who had relatives living overseas. My family background was suspect. There were political requirements and I definitely did not meet them. I was not permitted to apply to medical school. I was not allowed to apply to film school. I was too short for professional basketball.

Jia Lu with Father
With my father
All the doors were closed. There were no art courses in the Navy, so I asked my father how he became an artist. He told me, "You don't need to go to art school. I learned to paint while fighting the Japanese during the Second World War. I was on burial detail, and I felt as if I were burying my heart beside each of my fallen friends and comrades. I turned to art as a way to keep them alive." But I wasn't allowed to leave the naval compound: how could I study? He said, "that's the benefit of being an artist. You paint what you choose from the things around you. Just look for what calls out to you and draw it." So at the age of seventeen, I turned to art as a career and a way of life. Where my paths forward seemed blocked on all sides, by turning inward to my own vision I found myself in a landscape without paths, where I could roam as widely as I chose. I clung to art like a drowning woman, and it opened my eyes to what I might become.

Jia Lu Sketching
I believe we can shape our fate, that our lives are the greatest work of art we will ever create, and that happiness and wisdom aren't found "out there" or brought to us by a lover or teacher or job or money. We create ourselves, fashion beauty out of dross, and make great art out of the stuff around us.

And it all begins by learning to see.

Ha ha ha! You just knew it was coming didn't you? They don't call me the "torture teacher" for nothing. If you are going to be my student, you will have to do the homework. So here it is:

I want you to write in the comments about the moment you became an artist. A paragraph at least, and more if it was a complicated decision like mine. Even those of you who aren't painters. I don't care what tools you use to create your art, you're a deviant and I want to know why. Let's call it roll call, meet'n'greet, getting to know you - all teachers like to know who their students are, it helps us become better teachers.  

For those of you who are wondering: yes, this Journal is about attaining technical mastery of representational art. We'll start painting before too long, I promise, and I have a lots of professional secrets to share about how I achieve my results. I always thought technical mastery was the goal of an artistic education. How wrong can a person be? It turns out to be only the very first step on a long and fulfilling journey.

Until next time,

Love, Jia.

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Nandale Featured By Owner Nov 25, 2012  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Well, Iīd rather call myself a doodler than an artist..not yet, at least, but I donīt think thatīs what you meant by it..
As for me and art, Iīd say it was about one and a half years ago, when I decided that I didnīt only want to draw, but also learn and improve and now, I couldnīt let go of it without partly going mad, because it already became a part of me..but, being only 15 years old, Iīd consider myself still in the very beginning of my journey..
DeaconStrucktor Featured By Owner Nov 21, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Living in rural B.C. as a child, I was always accustomed to using my imagination to entertain myself, as friends lived at long distances. My brother and I always had creative toys, like Lego, that helped to promote creation. We drew and painted in pre-school and elementary school, but I think what originally made me "think of myself" as artistic or an artist was a series of stories that I wrote in elementary school (grade 4 perhaps?), short, silly little horror stories where someone usually got gobbled up by the monster at the end. They entertained my classmates and made me see that this "creative play" that I had been involved in, could be something more, something like Art - the dialogue between an artist and an audience. Not that I thought that, back then of course, I was simply pleased to have made my classmates laugh; but, thinking about this now, I'd say that was when I became an artist.
Yarased Featured By Owner Apr 11, 2010   Photographer
The moment I became an artist was when I proudly drew on my bedroom walls with my crayons, and innocently when to everyone I knew to exhibit them, of course it got me in trouble, but my mom never painted over them, even after we moved. When I was seen as an artist for the first time in my life I was 10 years old, by my 5th grade teacher who believed I could be one and opened my eyes to so many things like my love of books and different arts. She entered me in a painting competition. However I never thought of studying arts until the very last semester of highschool where I realized I wouldn't be happy with anything other than and art major. Now I'm 20 and almost graduating, I started playing the Cello a mere 3 months ago, and I'm already on my 3rd book, I've already played in an orchestra and will have 2 concerts this month, in that sense I can only say being an artist is in my DNA, it's what I was meant to be.
jialu Featured By Owner Mar 22, 2010  Professional Traditional Artist
It is stories like yours, Justin, that make teachers happy to be alive! There is nothing more rewarding than to know you have helped launch a talented person on his career. I think you will get something out of this course, because we will soon be looking at some specific techniques to improve those drawing skills, as well some very particular techniques for working in oils.
SundayPrism Featured By Owner Mar 22, 2010  Professional Traditional Artist
When I was very young my father drew a simple truck for me. I loved it so much that I redrew it and redrew it. From then on I always drew imaginative little vehicles and creatures. Then I started drawing cartoons and fell in love with people. Throughout grade school I sketched and played with drawings but never thought to be an artist, it was just a past-time. Then, in high school, the art teacher saw my drawings and PERSONALLY bought me a set of Prismacolor pencils, encouraging me to use color. Ever since then, I have been fascinated by art and have dedicated myself to becoming a painter. My high school teacher changed my life.
raindance168 Featured By Owner Mar 15, 2010
I grew up in a museum. Well, that's a private joke in my family, but my mother did work at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco as a docent until I was three. Because of my mother's connection with art, I have always been exposed to my creative side. When I think back on the stories and events of my childhood, I remember my being very influenced by the paintings of Yani and her monkeys. There is also the inspiration story of Raymond Hu, who has Down's Syndrome, and his love for painting animals. I think when I was 12, I met Raymond again (I had been to his home when I was younger) because my mother was helping to put together a show that would include some of Raymond's paintings. She told me that I would draw lots of animals after the first time I saw his drawings. Being 12, and seeing his art after many years, I was definitely more critical than I should have been. But now, I look back and recognize just how beautiful his art is, and enjoy seeing his growing skill over the years.

For me, I definitely remember some pictures of animals that I was exceptionally proud of when I was younger. Horses were my favorite, since that is my zodiac animal. I mostly doodled in those days. My fifth grade teacher was the first adult who really encouraged me to take art class, especially as I moved on into middle school. Sixth through eighth grade saw a continuation of my love for drawing animals, some of which I made up for fun. Most of my art assignments involved animals, and I would draw the pictures of animals I found in books at the library. Elementary and middle school were the years I spent in the library, pouring over books, and learning whatever passed under my nose. this included art books. Whatever techniques were in those books, I read about them and learned about them, even if I didn't always put them to practice. I didn't doodle quite so much in middle school, since I was concentrating on academics. Drawing was reserved for art class, for the most part.

High school hit, and I was fully engrossed in the realm of Japanese manga. I began to drift away from animals, and started drawing people. My style tended to drift towards the style of the artists I was viewing and reading at the time. Ninth grade was a year I did very little art, since art class didn't fit into my class schedule. Tenth grade, I dove into the intermediate drawing/painting class, and fully enjoyed the experience of trying different media and completing the assignments. The summer of 2007, I entered the Anime/Manga art contest at my local library with Silent Snow and won first place. The pleasure of creating art and being recognized by others definitely encouraged me to draw more.

The fall of 2007, my junior year of high school, was the beginning of my transformation and a growling love for art. My father had just gone through treatment for prostate cancer, and I was unable to focus in school. My grades slipped continually in all my classes, except art. It was therapeutic to draw and simply forget about things for a while. Art was a place where I could escape into daydreams. My obsession with angels, hair, and floriography showed up in my art. Fantasy and beautiful, genderless, angelic beings dominated (and continue to dominate) my pieces. The frustration and depression I felt found salvation in these visions and the sudden immersion of library books about human anatomy stacked a foot high on the edge of my bed.

There was some relief in my final year of high school. My grades picked up a bit, but still nowhere near the straight-As that I was used to. I settled somewhat more comfortably into my focus, the human form. Progress continued at a steady pace.

Now I'm in my first year of college, sitting in my dorm, typing this out instead of studying for my finals this week. I'm still lacking much of the discipline that I used to have in middle school and my first two years in high school, but it's gradually coming back. I am relearning how to think, how to study how to analyze, and how to view the world around me. I still tend to draw fantasy-themed pictures, but I'm also thinking of branching out and drawing more things outside of my comfort zone. The scenery of Santa Cruz, CA begs for breathtaking landscapes. As I'm finally settling into college life and living away from the shelter of my parents' house, hopefully I'll venture out more often and draw more of what's around me. I've been blessed to be surrounded by some of the most naturally beautiful landscapes growing up, and I must learn to take advantage of the opportunities in front of me.

So as an ending summary/note, I've always been one of those kids who is "good at drawing." 11th grade was the year I started to transform into a serious artist. With a few, small, local contests under my belt, I've felt the definite urge to improve and develop my art. My concerns these days lay in the future. What is ahead? I know I will always want to paint and draw, but should I only follow my heart, or also what is logical? At the moment, I'm trying to keep my options open. I will definitely major in art, but I'm also considering a double major combination with either biology or computer science. A science or technology-related major makes sense in today's world, since that's where the money is, but my passion lies in art. I know my father is worried that I won't be able to make a living in art, and he encourages me to try and get a job in the sciences. I could paint on the side. It's logical and makes sense. There's a definite sense of security, and it's good to exercise both the strictly analytical and abstract sides of the brain. But I still have some time ahead of me before I must decide on my major(s). We will have to see where I am being led, I think.

Ahaha, that was long. I think I just shared part of my life story, which I suppose I did.
jialu Featured By Owner Mar 22, 2010  Professional Traditional Artist
I just love getting looonnnggg comments! Thank you for sharing your development as an artist, Raindance. In reply to your question: should I follow my heart or also what is logical assumes you can't make a good living in the arts, and I think these days, especially in a place like California, that's not necessarily true. There are not a lot of very interesting or high-paying science jobs out there unless you plan to spend another seven years in a post-grad degree. Whereas all you need to start earning money in the arts is a great portfolio and the energy to show it to people who count. However, I think combining art and science is a wonderful idea. Science is filled with ideas and imagery that will continue to find their way into your work, and give you an outlook on the world that will help you stand out from the rest of the pack.
I grew up in a museum too, for my mother worked as an exhibit designer at the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Brilliant One spent nearly every weekend of his childhood in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto - so it's definitely a fertile ground for sprouting artists!
Sasa333 Featured By Owner Mar 14, 2010  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I started drawing as I was seven...I have watched TV and saw the series of Digimon^^ till then I've drawn a lot of monsters and figures, more or less manga...I got more interested in art as I was in school and we made a project, but I don't remember what it was about. I have ever drawn with pencil, rarely with others
I stopped drawing as I was 13, don't know why anymore, last summer I get used to draw again, but more realistic.
till then I was an active member on deviantart. 2010 I got a grafiktablet, I work every day with tat thing.
my parents haven't support me ever and won't do it. They think that it's not 'realistic' to have a job where these skills are needed. School is depressing me, even the art lessons, our teacher ignore our wishes and don't teach us serious.
sometimes I'm tired of it, but I try to don't give up....
jialu Featured By Owner Mar 14, 2010  Professional Traditional Artist
As artists we are beset by adversity on all sides. I believe we must thank the people who make life difficult, because they teach us to be stronger. No one can take anything from you that you are not prepared to give, and being a parent myself, I suspect your parents will not support you because they do not know or understand what you are becoming. Be gentle with them and show them the pride you take in your work. No teacher will ever grant all your wishes (no, not even me) but you are lucky that you are not stuck with one teacher. You can learn from everyone here.
Sasa333 Featured By Owner Mar 14, 2010  Hobbyist Digital Artist
:iconicameplz: nom nom nom thx
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